Gretchen Coyle and Deborah Whitcraft’s book, “Inferno at Sea, “ is probably the best and most thorough book on the tragedy of the Morro Castle off the Jersey Shore in 1934, and Whitcraft’s New Jersey Maritime Museum on Long Beach Island is probably the best place to go to learn more about the awful fire at sea that caught the attention of everyone across the world at that time.
Both in the book and in the museum, Whitcraft has some pretty spectacular souvenirs and remnants of the cruise liner that was enroute back to New York from Havana Cuba when the fire broke out.
She tells of the men and women not only aboard the ship, but all the wonderful New Jerseyans who reached to the shore, manned first aid stations, brought food and clothes for survivors, and showed New Jerseyans at their best in times of crisis.
There are a lot of great stories of heroism and high standards, certainly not about crew members who apparently were the first to leave the burning sinking ship with no regard for their duties, obligations or drowning passengers. One of my favorite is about Alma Hill, a survivor, and a woman with a strength, leadership, determination and spunk not generally associated with women in the 1930s.
Alma was a single gal employed as a stenographer by the Royal Indemnity company, working in one of their claims offices in Philadelphia. She was 28 years old, apparently an employee much admired and loved by her employers since they sent her a lovely letter and a check to help her out after the disaster.
Alma had what appears to be premonitions about the trip. First, her girlfriend had to opt out at the last minute, but Alma decided to travel on by herself. The night before she boarded the ship enroute to Cuba, she had second thoughts, but still persisted. She had a great time in Havana, purchased some jewelry and souvenirs to bring home and went to bed early the night of the fire. All the end of cruise activities had been cancelled when it was announced that the ship’s captain had died of an apparent heart attack the last night at sea on the return trip.
After she was awakened by a crew member after the blaze started, Alma did as she was told: put a coat on over her pajamas, got a life preserver from her room and climbed the stairs in the dark to the upper deck where she had been directed to go. She was still wearing her Elgin watch, but had little else of her belongings other than some money she tucked into her lifeboat, but that got lost at sea.
After waiting on the deck for almost an hour with no guidance coming from any of the crew, Alma and others finally decided they’d jump in the ocean, figuring a boat would be along to rescue them soon. That didn’t happen for another seven hours. The Elgin watch gave out after two, and Alma floated alone in the dark ocean, occasionally bumping into others, finally going hysterical aft er being picked up by a boat, from fear, cold, weary from swimming, though she was a good swimmer, and drifting in the darkness and rain.
There’s so much more to her story, all told so well at the Museum, but Alma was rescued, brought to the Spring Lake firehouse, given clothes, and eventually put on a train and delivered back to her parents in New York. New Jersey had done her proud in all the rescue efforts.
But Alma Hill was also a fastidious bookkeeper, an accurate writer and a determined lady. She believed she should be compensated for the clothing and other belonging s that went down with the ship, but not over compensated. When she submitted her list of claims, she even deducted percentages from their cost to compensate for their age and use.
Her best efforts went for her Elgin watch. She wrote to the watch company and explained that it had stopped working after she was in the water a couple of hours and felt she should be compensated. She got a letter back from the company’s Advertising Manager, Frank Brodsky, employed in the Elgin, Illinois headquarters of the Elgin National Watch Company.
After expressing his sympathy with the disaster, Mr. Brodsky then went on to explain how sorry he was that the watch stopped functioning “as the result of your having been submerged at sea.” Then he went on to say he was “even more sorry to have to inform you that it would be impossible to place your watch in good condition,” but he wanted to explain why. He told Alma, who had been alone in the cold Atlantic in rain, in the dark, for seven hours, “the sea, with its salt water, not only rusts, but permanently injures watch material.” So sorry, Alma, no new watch for you!
On the other hand, Mr. Brodsky wanted to make this survivor of the biggest tragedy at sea in the 1930s, an offer. If their advertising agency, to whom they had sent Alma’s letter, wanted to use her in advertising, they would contact her, let her know and have her sign a release for her testimonial. And, he continued, if all that happened Alma Hill would be “properly compensated for the use.”
That’s the last this gutsy lady apparently ever heard from the company, or Mr. Brodsky.
That silver watch, still sparkly silver and still not repaired, is one of the exhibits on a top shelf in the Morro Castle Room of the Beach Haven Maritime Museum. It’s worth the trip just to see that and learn more about this fascinating lady and her story.
The museum is open Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Visit their website at njmaritimemuseum.org.